From Page to Screen: Daphne Du Maurier’s My Cousin Rachel

In 2017, a big-screen adaption of Daphne du Maurier’s novel (and Bas Bleu favorite) My Cousin Rachel landed in theaters, with English actress Rachel Weisz making her mark on the role Olivia de Havilland debuted in 1952.  Recently, one of our reviewers volunteered to check out the movie and report back to the rest of the Bas Bleu team. Here’s what she had to say:

I’m not always a fan of seeing movies based on books I’ve enjoyed. While it can be fascinating to see a beloved story reimagined in a different medium, there’s also inevitable disappointment when the filmmaker’s vision doesn’t match my own mental interpretation. But when the 2017 film version of Daphne du Maurier’s 1951 novel My Cousin Rachel came out, I decided to give it shot. Truth be told, by the time I saw the movie it had been a while since I’d read the book, but the irresistibly beguiling character of Rachel and the sense of sinister foreboding that pervaded the novel were memorable, and seemed well-suited for the screen.

From the opening grand shots of dramatic bluffs, expansive landscapes, and thundering herds of horses, Roger Michell’s adaptation immediately whisks the viewer to the Cornwall coast where the story is set. The shadowy interiors and evocative period dress did much to conjure the novel’s gothic atmosphere—visually similar to what I pictured when reading the book. The real question, though, would be if the film would succeed in capturing the tension that pervades the book—both the escalating flirtatious interludes between Philip and Rachel, and the lingering “did she or didn’t she” mystery surrounding Rachel.

Sam Claflin plays the uncouth and inexperienced Philip, and he does so with rugged aplomb. But, perhaps because the film was more generous in its perspective than the book (which only narrated events from Philip’s point of view), I liked Philip far less in the film than in the book. In the pages, I sympathized with his emotional leaps from rage to adoration to uncertainty, because I fell for Rachel’s mysterious allure along with him. But watching the film—in which his infatuation with Rachel is consummated much more explicitly than in the book!—I found him immature at best, and often misogynistic and even abusive.

In the end, though, I think the success of the film comes down to the performance of Rachel Weisz, who plays the enigmatic Rachel. Coming across as simultaneously vulnerable yet powerful, Weisz’s Rachel embodies the dark, seductive mystery of Du Maurier’s title character. And that is key, because the suspense of both the book and the movie hinge on Rachel’s inscrutably ambiguous charm—is she naïve or manipulative, a victim or a killer? The novel and the film just might lead you to different conclusions.

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